A few years ago, Somalian teenager Abdi was kidnapped and forced by the CIA to go undercover in the jihadi group Al Shabaab. His brother was taken by Al Shabaab a few years earlier and has now bought into the group’s mission, becoming a leader himself. Abdi must ingratiate himself with the leaders of Al Shabaab, starting with his brother, and feed information back to the CIA agent, who holds the rest of his family hostage.
This story is interspersed with Abdi’s story in the present day, where he’s in the care of the UN in fictional Sangui City, Kenya, going to school as they try to find his family and some sort of permanent home for him. How Abdi got from the Al Shabaab camp in Somalia to Kenya unravels slowly, as does what exactly Abdi had to do to save himself and his family (and if he saved them at all) while there.
A child soldier’s life is a challenging topic to write about, but Anderson has a deft touch and writes Abdi well. His family is everything, and he’s scared of losing them, but also terrified of being brainwashed by Al Shabaab as his brother, someone he looked up to and admired, was. Groups like the real-life Al Shabaab use pieces of truth to tell lies, making them all the more alluring to young minds who are fed a diet of the same propaganda day after day. Even more terrifying, he’s unsure how far he’ll have to go within Al Shabaab – murder, suicide bombing, and more – in order to get the information the CIA agent demands in order to save his family. It’s easy to feel empathy for Abdi, even as he’s wracked with guilt in the present-day sections over his as-yet-unknown actions. I look forward to a lengthy author’s note at the end.
You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook
I love a good high concept thriller, and Cook’s latest has a great one. Borrowing from Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, she reimagines it as Strangers on a Plane with two teenage girls. Kim is traveling to London on a school trip with a number of other students, including her newly-ex-boyfriend Connor, when she meets Nicki, a confident English girl on her gap year between high school and college. Nicki encourages Kim to act a little more brashly in the little time they have on the plane, and they both get drunk on some stolen liquor. In the midst of Kim’s drunkenness, she confides in Nicki about her antipathy toward Connor, and Nicki shares her disdain for her alcoholic mother. Wouldn’t it be great, Nicki says, if they each took care of the other’s problem? Kim, of course, thinks this idea of swapping murders is a joke, but when Connor is run over by a train soon into the trip, Nicki tells Kim that it was no accident, and she intends to hold Kim to her side of the bargain.
This is a fun thriller with twists and turns that don’t end at Nicki’s reappearance. Kim herself is hiding some secrets, and even seasoned thriller readers may be caught by surprise. Nicki uses coercion, blackmail, and threats to convince Kim to murder her mom, and I’ve found myself wondering why Nicki doesn’t just do it herself; she seems to have gotten away with Connor’s murder pretty neatly. But I try not to think too hard on that aspect and just enjoy the ride.
This is the next in the line of Station Eleven readalikes I’ve been making my way through for the past few years. When I first saw this book in 2014, the year of its publication, I assumed it was your standard literary fiction about a miserable family and how their misery somehow defines what California is like, or something along those lines. Imagine my delight when I learned it was actually about the end of the world! Everyone is still miserable, but there’s a much more exciting backdrop.
In all seriousness, though, “miserable” is a bit of an exaggeration. The story opens several years after the sketchily-defined apocalypse (which I assume will grow more defined as the book progresses), and the two leads – married couple Frida and Cal – have managed to create a sustainable life in the wilderness outside the bounds of what used to be Los Angeles. They’re not happy, per se, but they seem relatively content, though greater challenges (running out of the soap they’ve carefully rationed, the dwindling opportunities for hunting) loom on the horizon. And then Frida finds herself pregnant, a surprise – the couple hadn’t been using protection for years, and Frida just assumed she was unable to bear children. But suddenly, the far-off problems become much more immediate, and the two decide to travel to the nearest settlement, believing it’s the only way their child will survive.
This definitely has a Station Eleven vibe, and I’m enjoying it a lot so far. Lepucki is good at introducing characters and plot elements and tweaking their interactions just slightly so that readers sense that something might be a little off – but they’re not quite sure what or why. It makes for an intriguing story that I’ve found myself sucked into pretty quickly.